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Natural Resources: the Overlooked Link in Peacemaking

26th November 2014

By Daniel Curwin and Emily Daglish

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Part One of the ‘Natural Resources and Conflict’ Project

The latter half of the 20th century, despite being mired in the depths of the Cold War, was a period in which human technological advancements dramatically increased the standard of living for countless individuals around the globe. The drastic acceleration of global industrialisation during this period has been fuelled by natural resource development, often occurring in some of the world’s poorest states. The pursuit of wealth generated from resource development essential for our modern conveniences has significantly contributed to conflict in many regions, several of which are ecologically sensitive areas. Indeed, over 90% of the major armed conflicts between 1950 and 2000 occurred within countries containing biodiversity hotspots – regions with a significant reservoir of biodiversity under threat from humans – and 80% took place directly within hotspot areas.[1] This not only puts short-term human security at risk, but also has a significant impact on the long-term security of societies which rely upon replenishable natural resources for survival.

Development in the 21st century has continued along this resource-intensive path, which in turn has expanded the pressures that we have placed on the earth’s natural systems. Increasingly common in natural resource-rich regions is low-level intra-state conflict, with numerous non-state armed groups (NSAGs), often with different goals and purposes, acting simultaneously. The relationship between NSAGs and natural resources is a complex one, particularly in conditions conducive to conflict. The presence of lucrative natural resources, unequal distribution of wealth, greed, and instability can all provide the incentive for rebel takeover of natural resources, whether combined or as lone factors[2]. If resource-rich states are to eliminate the threat posed by NSAGs then they must consider economic, structural, social, and ecological factors when designing policy that will lead to long-term stability and prosperity.[3]

‘Natural Resource and Conflict’ is an ongoing project that will seek to examine the relationship between natural resource development and NSAGs in specific cases, while pursuing solutions utilizing environmental peacemaking strategies that are the result of economic, structural, ecological, and social analysis. The environment, its natural resources and their development can open several effective channels between stakeholders, such as enhancing trust, establishing habits of cooperation, lengthening the time horizons of decisionmakers, forging cooperative trans-societal linkages, and creating shared regional norms and identities[4]. To create sustainable peace, it is essential to also create an environment where the human security of a state’s citizens is not put at risk by NSAGs, something that requires a multifaceted approach.

1. Natural Resource Governance

Widespread Institutional Failure

Conflict in the global South frequently involves poor, mainly rural populations struggling to maintain access to the resources on which they depend to make a living[5]. The United Nations’ Millennium Ecosystem Assessment points to the human reliance on manifold ecosystem services – ‘provisioning’ services – that provides individuals with goods and services essential for their livelihoods and well-being[6]. That conflict often occurs within states that are rich in natural resources represents a failure of governance that has put the human security of citizens who rely on these provisioning services at risk. Many of the resource rich areas that experience conflict are linked by common factors that in turn lead to unrest and an opportunity for rebel exploitation. For instance, state control of resources that excludes the interests of local communities or ethnic groups alongside an unequal distribution of wealth are common factors in cases of resource related conflict.

Access and control of natural, lucrative resources can serve as an important symbol of power for NSAGs, whilst providing crucial financing for war efforts[7]. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) notes five factors that influence NSAG’s ability to control resources:

  • Level of state control over territory;
  • Geographic distribution of resources and distance from state capital;
  • The extent to which groups can extract/control movement of the resources;
  • The group’s access to cross-border trading networks; and
  • The ability of the state/international community to respond to the security threat[8]

Control over of natural resources also has considerable implications for local communities, as both NSAGs and states have been known to brutalise and exploit citizens when trying to gain access to resources. Conflict can disrupt local access to both natural resources and livelihoods. At the same time, rebel attempts to gain control over resources can provoke the formation of new armed groups and militias attempting to defend their communities, further complicating the conflict. Securing and maintaining resource wealth can furthermore have implications for rebel structures, as “the availability [of natural resources] can also lead to a splintering of armed groups, thereby multiplying the actors involved and further complicating peace negotiations”[9]. In Africa’s oil rich countries, leadership structures have changed as youth groups, militias and armed rebel groups have side-lined traditional rulerships and taken over liaison with many oil companies[10]. Resource control itself changes the actors involved, as well as the conflict and prospects for peace, and poses a significant threat to state control – especially in rural areas that are not easily accessible.

If citizens lose confidence in central governments’ ability to effectively manage natural resources and allocate the wealth generated, then governments will find it increasingly difficult to govern populations in the hinterland who often feel little connection to the state – a loss for the state, the general population, and the environment. To mitigate against conflict in an ecologically sustainable manner, existing resource governance frameworks must be adapted so that relationships between governments, citizens, and the private sector are based around principles of transparency, stakeholder inclusiveness, and sustainability (economic and ecological). Policies and partnerships must be crafted that will allow regional access to employment and investment in regions where resource development have been responsible for violence. Capital gained from abroad through foreign direct investment (FDI) and public private partnerships (PPPs) – in addition to the labour gained from temporary foreign workers that were previously combatants – will enable increased investment in modern infrastructure. This will in turn will contribute to improving regional security situations and strengthen central government positions in tumultuous and geographically isolated conflict zones.

2. The Political Economy of Natural Resource Development in Conflict Zones

Multiple stakeholders with opposing interests

Operating outside state and international economic infrastructure provides an incentive for NSAGs to seek extra-legal financing for their activities. Natural resources are often an extremely lucrative option that can support conflict by funding arms.[11] Lack of sufficient governance furthermore provides ample opportunity for non-state actors to enter as it is often the situation of disorder, rather than the resources themselves, which provide the incentive for resource exploitation.[12] Poor governance of resources can even provide the impetus behind an armed group’s formation, as unequal distribution of income from resources can create grievances that manifest in violence[13]. To ensure good governance of natural resources, the role that ‘provisioning’ services play in community livelihoods must be recognised, alongside the significant ramifications that abusing this role for state power or profit may have. Governments utilizing environmental peacemaking ideals and strategies can build and repair confidence with their citizens by ensuring that the livelihoods of local communities are not disrupted by large-scale resource development, and by eliminating the inefficiencies that follow from deliberate distortions in the marketplace in the form of subsidies and exemptions to resource companies.

Riccardian economics tells us that technological progress will mitigate the risks posed by natural resource scarcity.[14] However, our most advanced extraction technologies are often not implemented in states where regulation or security does not require or allow it – see Nigeria, Guatemala, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. If weak governance persists in regions that possess ecological hotspots and an abundance of natural resources, then the world’s growing population cannot attain a Western standard of living by following traditional industrial paths to development. The resources required are simply too vast, too expensive, and too damaging to local and global systems[15].

Multinational companies (MNCs) often play a role in rebel control of natural resources, either by collaborating with the group for favourable access or prices or by refusing to engage. A refusal to engage can result in severe disruption of production, whereas engagement (e.g. in Sierra Leone) can result in international condemnation and MNC’s in effect contributing to a continuation of violence. In some cases, MNC facilities and personnel are attacked because they are viewed as “part of the problem of inequitable treatment, neglect, disinheritance and deprivation”.[16] Conversely, the international shadow economy has a considerable role to play, as “warlords and insurgents particularly thrive on illegal international trading and export of looted minerals and timber through foreign firms and agents, as has occurred in Angola, Liberia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo”.[17] The way the international community reacts to NSAGs takeover of natural resources furthermore has a huge impact on the group and its ability to profit. Sanctions by the West on said resources are often the preferred course of action; however, they are considered by the United Nations to be too blunt an instrument to address the complex relationships between NSAGs and natural resources.[18]

The complex relationship between NSAGs, natural resources and governments often involves considerable negotiation, and, as often is the case in particularly intractable conflicts, resources have a significant role to play in the eventual de-escalation of violence. Despite the fact that rebel exploitation of resources can serve as a disincentive to engage in peace negotiations, effective resource governance can play a hugely positive role in creating post-conflict stability. Ensuring the long-term viability of states, communities and environments cannot be achieved with any singular policy or agreement – economic, structural, ecological, and social factors must all be considered. Re-integration of ex-combatants is crucial, alongside equitable management and access to resources to provide economic opportunities and employment whilst reducing community tensions and susceptibility to re-recruitment.[19] Promoting inclusive dialogue around the shared interest of natural resources is equally crucial for re-integration and peace, often an extremely fractious and difficult process, and forging trust is essential to ensure that conflict does not re-emerge. If managed poorly, resources can provide incentive for looting as well as money for criminal activity and conflict escalation, while unchecked environmental destruction can result in communities organising against resource development.

3. Environmental Peacemaking

 Stabilizing and Preventing Natural Resource-Conflicts

The myriad of issues associated with the concept of sustainable development are not singularly ecological, economic, political, or social – they are a combination thereof.[20]

If resource-rich states are to eliminate the threat posed by NSAGs then environmental peacemaking strategies must be employed to ensure that social, economic, and political considerations are incorporated into a dynamic resource governance framework. Most ecological peace initiatives fall into one of three partly overlapping categories:

  • Initiatives to prevent conflicts that are directly related to the environment;
  • Efforts to initiate and sustain a dialogue on trans-boundary environmental cooperation between parties to a conflict, including the creation of Transboundary Protected Areas (TPAs); and
  • Initiatives that seek a lasting peace by promoting conditions for sustainable development[21]

In relation to conflicts associated with natural resources, research that examines conditions for sustainable development is the area that policymakers concerned with post-conflict resolution should focus on.

Creating lasting frameworks and institutions that ensure that all stakeholders have the ability both to influence natural resource policy and prosper from its development, while also safeguarding the environment and ecologically sensitive areas, is no easy task. However, if the various catalysts that lead to the emergence of NSAGs in resource-rich areas are to be addressed, utilizing the umbrella of environmental peacemaking to bring stakeholders together will become increasingly effective in a world where populations are growing and natural resources are finite.

Missing from much of the environmental peacemaking debate is how to incorporate the private sector within a dynamic framework based around ecological interdependencies. Capitalist markets cannot be sidelined if environmental peacemaking is to truly create peace where it currently does not exist – especially in the short-term. If governments in natural resource-conflict prone states are to create stable environments for citizens to prosper, then effective programs and frameworks are necessary. The stakeholders must include not only local populations, governments, and combatants, but MNCs as well. Though environmental degradation is recognized as a catalyst for violent conflict, environmental cooperation has largely gone unexplored as a means of peacemaking[22]. However, without institutional and governance reform that allows parties from opposing sides of a conflict to prosper, existing environmental peacemaking strategies will remain limited in both scope and impact.

4. A New Strategy

 How to eliminate the threats posed by NSAGs

Natural resources and their development will continue to drive growth in the foreseeable future. If states are to ensure that the development of natural resources is done in a manner that eliminates the threat posed by NSAGs and prevents future ecologically-based threats to human security, then a process of institutional reform and a new policy framework that incorporates stakeholders on opposing sides of a conflict is needed. Proper management of natural resources in the aftermath of conflict is crucial to stabilise conflict areas, especially as poor management has proven to be a factor in the re-emergence of tensions. Environmental peacemaking tells us that if we are to end current resource-based conflicts and prevent future ones then:

  • Resource management must be a central aspect in conflict mediation and prevention strategies;
  • There must be cooperation and consultation between local communities and outside actors to prevent tension from building up;
  • Stakeholders from opposing sides of the conflict must be able to benefit from resource-wealth, even if they hail from a different political jurisdictions;
  • It must be recognition that environmental degradation plays a major role in escalation of tensions;
  • More must be done to tackle the ways in which rebel groups profit from illegal takeover of resources;
  • Governments should establish Transboundary Protected Areas in regions that are sensitive and important on all sides of a border; and
  • Communities which suffer from conflict over resources in their area need increased levels of service from central governments

Given the considerable number of conflicts involving resource contestation, there is an urgent need to apply lessons learned to current and future conflicts, while recognizing that each conflict is unique and complex. Although it is essential to make full use of best practice, policymakers must also understand the root causes of the specific conflict and interpret the practice accordingly. Environmental peacemaking strategies can be effective at the local, regional and global level. What is required for the success of environmental peacemaking is acceptance that 19th and 20th century development techniques have thus far progressed too slowly – especially in the developing world – to confidently assert that current economic incentives alone will force resource extraction techniques to adapt before the coming population boom in the developing world overwhelms our natural systems. Without adequate natural resource governance, millions worldwide will face security threats to not only to their livelihood and way of life, but to their physical person as well.

Daniel Curwin is a Research Assistant with the HSC. Contactable at: daniel.curwin@hscentre.org

Emily Daglish is a Research Assistant with the HSC. Contactable at: emily.daglish@hscentre.org

Cite this article as:

Curwin D. & Daglish E. (2014). ‘Natural Resources: An Overlooked link in Peacemaking’ Human Security Centre Policy Unit, Issue 4, No. 1. 26th November 2014.

[2]Ganesan and Vines, (2004) ‘Engine of War: Resources, Greed, and the Predatory State’ Link

[3]Gunderson, L; Holling, C.S., Panarchy: Understanding Transformatins in Human and Natural Systems, Island Press, 2001, p.4

[4] Carius, A., Environmental Peacebuilding: Conditions for

Success, The Wilson Center. Link

[5] Frerks, G; Dietz, T; van der Zaag, P. Conflict and cooperation on natural resources in the global south: Conceptual approaches, CRC Press, 2014, pp. 13-21.

[6] United Nations Environment Programme, Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, Ecosystems and human well-being: A Framework for Assessment, Island Press, 2003, pp. 49-70. Link

[7] UNEP and UNDP (2013) ‘The Role of Natural Resources in Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration’. Link

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Ikelegbe (2005) ‘The Economy of Conflict in the Oil Rich Niger Delta Region of Nigeria’. Link

[11] Ganesan and Vines, (2004) ‘Engine of War: Resources, Greed, and the Predatory State’. Link

[12] Ikelegbe (2005) ‘The Economy of Conflict in the Oil Rich Niger Delta Region of Nigeria’. Link

[13] Ganesan and Vines, (2004) ‘Engine of War: Resources, Greed, and the Predatory State’. Link

[14]Horner, J, Henry George on Thomas Robert Malthus: Abundance vs. Scarcity, American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol 56, No 4 (October 1997): 595-607. Link

[15] Hawken, P., A. Lovins, H. Lovins, ‘The Next Industrial Revolution’, US Green Building Council, 2008, pp. 1-21

[16] Ikelegbe (2005) ‘The Economy of Conflict in the Oil Rich Niger Delta Region of Nigeria’. Link

[17] Ibid

[18] UNEP and UNDP (2013) ‘The Role of Natural Resources in Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration’. Link

[19] Ibid

[20]Gunderson, L; Holling, C.S., Panarchy: Understanding Transformatins in Human and Natural Systems, Island Press, 2001, p.4

[21] Carius, A., Environmental Peacebuilding: Conditions for Success, The Woodrow Wilson Center Press. Link

[22] Conca, K; Dabelko, G., Environmetal Peacemaking. Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2002, pp. 1-22

About Daniel Curwin and Emily Daglish

Emily Daglish is a Research Assistant in the Policy Unit. Areas of particular research interest have included non-state armed groups, post conflict transition, conflict mediation and counter terrorism. Daniel Curwin is a Research Assistant in the Policy Unit. His research interests include the political economy of natural resource wealth allocation, environmental peacemaking, and post-conflict reconciliation processes.